Can an employer discriminate on grounds of philosophical belief?

Are employers prevented from discriminating against a staff member on grounds of philosophical belief, if for example, an employee is the only person to hold such a belief?

Let’s look at a recent case in the Employment Appeals Tribunal, Gray v Mulberry.

Who owns copyright?

In this case, Ms Gray worked for Mulberry, a bag, shoe and accessory design company.

She refused to sign a standard contract clause which assigned copyright in her work to her employer. She feared that it would give them ownership over a novel and screenplay that she was writing (even though the contract was amended to exclude them).

Ms Gray was eventually dismissed.

Protected characteristics

Ms Gray claimed her belief in the sanctity of copyright law was a philosophical belief and thus a protected characteristic.

The Equality Act protects the following groups:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity

What is religious or philosophical belief discrimination?

Religious or philosophical discrimination occurs if someone is treated unfairly in the workplace because of their religious or philosophical belief, or because of the religious or philosophical belief of someone else that they are associated with (such as a child or a partner).

What qualifies as a philosophical belief?

A case in 2009, set out the guidelines for deciding whether a religious or philosophical belief is covered under the Equality Act 2010. In order to qualify for protection under the Equality Act, the belief must be:

  • Genuinely held
  • A belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
  • A belief as to a weight and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • The belief must have a certain level of cogency, seriousness, coherency, and importance
  • The belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity, and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

Does this belief have sufficient cogency?

The Employment Appeal Tribunal, after considering the necessary limbs for establishing a philosophical belief, held that the tribunal was entitled to conclude that the belief lacked sufficient cogency to qualify under the Equality Act 2010.

Kate Fretten, a Partner in our Employment Team, comments “The Employment Appeal Tribunal felt that this belief was not clear, logical or convincing. Interestingly, the Employment Appeal Tribunal held that even if it was wrong, there could be no indirect discrimination because Ms Gray (as far as the evidence stated) was the only person known to hold such a belief. Accordingly there could be no disadvantaged group, as she was not part of any group. Therefore, her indirect discrimination claim had to fail.”

Permission has been granted for an appeal to the Court of Appeal.

 

At Frettens, all of our solicitors offer a free initial meeting or chat on the phone to answer your questions. If this article raises issues for you or your business, please call us on 01202 499255 and Kate or Paul will be happy to discuss it with you.